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Kerry shouldn’t take the blame if peace talks fail

Both Israelis and Palestinians need to break the cycle of “blame America.”
Right-wing Israelis hold a banner depicting U.S Secretary of State John Kerry as they march during a rally in E1, an area in the West Bank near Jerusalem February 13, 2014. Thousands of right-wing Israelis took part in the rally on Thursday in E1, a geographically sensitive area which connects the two parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank outside Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem, calling for Israeli building in the area which Palestinians seek for a contiguous future state. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (WEST BANK - T

Poor Thomas Jefferson.

In all the political biographies written about the third US president and first secretary of state (1790-1793), including Jon Meacham's wonderful Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, not once was it noted that Jefferson was one of only a handful of US secretaries of state who was not blamed by Israel and/or the Arabs for their diplomatic "peace process" failings and shortcomings.

Historically, this is of course a wild exaggeration. But if you do list all US secretaries of state since Israel's Independence in 1948 (the first was George Marshall), through John Foster Dulles, William Rogers, Henry Kissinger, Warren Christopher, Madeline Albright, Colin Powell — to name some victims — up to the current secretary, John F. Kerry, only a select few were spared Israeli and Palestinian hostility, resentment, criticism and subsequent grudges.

Extraordinarily, some spent their entire tenure without any friction in the Middle East. Charles Bohlen, for example. He was acting secretary Jan. 20-22, 1969. Or Kenneth Rush, Sept. 3-22 1973. Particularly fortunate was Richard Cooper, who spent the entire day of May 3, 1980, as acting US secretary of state without getting any flak from Israel or the Palestinians for underachieving or being over-ambitious or presenting an unacceptable peace plan. Luckily for Cooper, May 4 was a Saturday. What a relief.

The same applies to presidents. From Harry Truman to Barack Obama, not one president left the White House without some Mideast-inflicted wounds, scars, insults and a sense of failure or missed opportunity.

The Middle East is seen as a black hole of US foreign policy, the diplomatic equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle, where presidents and secretaries of state mysteriously disappear. This is historically inaccurate and undervalues and underrates many US achievements, but the inescapable impression and perception, especially in the region, is that the United States never succeeded in the broad Middle East. The lingering characterization of US policy is of grand debacles, minor and insignificant successes and perennial confusion. This is distorted and wrong, but the impression seems indelible.

Of course, no one in the Middle East blames anyone in the Middle East for the region's upheavals. Everyone knows how to kill in the Middle East. But when it comes to diplomatic peace processes, it's America's fault that we don't have a good one.

To parody "Casablanca," what the Israeli Humphrey Bogart would have said to the Palestinian Ingrid Bergman is: "We'll always have Washington."

We can provide an in-depth analysis of US policy in the region, permanent and changing interests, geopolitical environs, Cold War and post-Cold War policies and come up with reasonable explanations for America's ongoing love-hate relationship with the Middle East. But there is one parallel pattern that has indigenously developed in the Israeli-Palestinian context: 

Whatever their flaws, failures, distrust, animosity, suspicion and dereliction when negotiating with each other, Israelis and Palestinians have always agreed on one fundamental, immutable conclusion explaining the absence of a permanent peace deal: It's America's fault.

Israelis and Palestinians have perfected to an art the ideas and postures why "differences are unbridgeable"; "narratives are irreconcilable"; "approaches to the core issues are incompatible"; and why "terror, occupation, settlements, refugees, justice, biblical rights, self-determination make a deal impossible."

Yet when a process begins and develops, Israelis and Palestinians have found common ground on why all of the above cannot be dealt with: Because of the United States' incoherent policies. Sometime the president/secretary of state is "too involved" or "too ambitious" or "not tuned to our concerns" or "thinks he can impose a solution." Sometimes the president/secretary of state is not involved enough. He/they is/are aloof, standoffish, disengaged, "cannot want a deal more than the parties" or fail(s) to provide creative ideas and a sensible policy.

Either way, the United States is perpetually guilt of "not getting it." The United States, according to both Israelis and Palestinians, is naive, thinks this is an American corporate boardroom where negotiations between reasonable lawyers actually produce agreements. The United States just doesn't see the complexity and solution-defying inner beauty of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gullibly thinks gaps are bridgeable. On numerous occasions, Israelis and Palestinians used a mirror-image argument, criticizing the United States for favoring or endorsing the other side's position. The Clinton era Palestinian assertion that there are "too many Jews" on the US Mideast policy team and therefore and inevitably the United States has a pro-Israeli bias, not to mention the diabolical stranglehold "the Jewish lobby" has over US foreign policy is almost interchangeable in the Obama-era (and before that in the George H.W. Bush era) by "The United States is insensitive to Israeli concerns, doesn't understand that Israel is the victim here, misses the big picture (Iran) and misunderstands the total irrelevancy of the settlements in the West Bank."

Different narrative, similar argument.

Which brings us to John Kerry. He has been exceptionally undeterred by both sides' rude, ungrateful tendency to undermine, insult, deride and dismiss him and his ideas. Both sides have a disincentive for the process to proceed in a meaningful and result-driven way. Tragically, both have valid points. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a point when he says that a prematurely established Palestinian state can degenerate into a "failed state" and a terror state. He also has a coalition that makes any progress impossible.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot accept anything less than the Clinton parameters of 2001 or the [then-Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert-Abbas exchange of ideas in 2008. So both sides gleefully declare an impasse and divert their energy toward throwing blame on the other side. Kerry, as the pattern suggests, is not only caught in the crossfire of accusations and the sanctimonious "They started it," but is the culprit because his ideas were "premature" and the US "mismanaged" the process.

The contours of an agreement, attainable or not, are known. Kerry did not come with new ideas, but a reworded, rearranged, somewhat repackaged version of the Clinton parameters.

So while both sides can, do and will blame him for their inability, unwillingness and reluctance to make decisions, as they habitually did to his predecessors, they would be wise to consider the following: After Kerry's efforts, mediation and involvement, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, in the event that Kerry fails, to see a near-future secretary of state investing resources, time, reputation and American foreign policy capital. Why should he?

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